Americans have kept the tradition for nearly 150 years. After the Civil War, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic—an organization of former soldiers and sailors—proclaimed May 30, 1868 as Decoration Day. He envisioned that people would pause on this day to decorate with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country. In his order for his posts he wrote: “...Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
On that first official Decoration Day, his vision came true. It is said that some 5,000 people attended a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the Grand Army of the Republic laid flowers, cited prayers, and sang hymns at the ceremonies.
Gradually more and more communities around the country began to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for America. In 1873, New York became the first state to officially recognize the holiday and more states soon followed to declare May 30 as the official holiday. Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those soldiers lost in the Civil War but during the World War I era, the holiday evolved to honor American military who died in all wars. In 1966, President Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo, N.Y., the birthplace of Memorial Day and in 1971, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.
Today’s observances are similar to those held during the holiday’s early beginnings. Communities around the country plan tributes, host parades, and honor those who died serving their country. Small American flags are still placed at the graves of loved ones and flowers are planted. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” It encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a moment of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. I am always humbled by the observances held on this important holiday weekend, and admire the people in our own small communities who organize the ceremonies that honor those who gave their lives to our great country. These ceremonies and tributes allow the whole community to pay tribute to the ones who have gone before us and keep the importance of this holiday at the forefront of our minds.
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